Guinea: Estrangement Between the Leaders and the People

Victor D. Du Bois
The Rise of an Opposition to Sékou Touré
“Part II: The Estrangement Between the Leaders and the People of Guinea”
American Universities Field Staff Reports. West Africa Series
Vol. IX No. 2, (Guinea), March 1966, pp.1-12

For the Republic of Guinea, 1964 and 1965 were troubled years. Many problems, some of them dating back to the early days of independence, remained unresolved. The economic accords reached with France in November 1963 had borne little fruit; for while these accords were supposed to have settled all outstanding financial problems between the two nations, they had had little effect on the state of things within Guinea itself. The country remained outside the franc zone, its currency was still inconvertible, and its living standard continued to decline. Added to these problems was now another and more ominous one—a growing sense of bitterness among the people toward their leaders.

Victor David Du Bois (1932-1983)
Victor David Du Bois (1932-1983)

The proud boast made by Sékou Touré at the time of independence that Guineans “preferred liberty in poverty to riches in slavery” had turned into a rueful nightmare for most of the people. Freed from the control of France in 1958, they found seven years later that they had lost even the liberty they had previously enjoyed under French rule. Poverty had become the norm, and they now lived under an oppression as reprehensible as any they had experienced during the colonial regime.

At the outset of Guinea’s independence, Sékou Touré could count many social groups among his supporters. There were teachers and civil servants in Guinea, as well as those who had voluntarily come from neighboring Senegal and Mali, to help him out after the abrupt withdrawal of French functionaries. There were the thousands of veterans who had resigned from the French army in order to serve their newly independent country. There were the labor leaders who were confident that Sékou Touré would continue to champion workers’ rights. There were the tens of thousands of Guinean women who saw in Touré a man who would not only instigate the necessary reforms to free them from near bondage, but who would also make it possible for them and their families to enjoy a higher standard of living. Finally, there were the intellectuals and the youth who regarded Touré as the African nationalist under whose influence and guidance a whole new era of social justice, economic opportunity, and intellectual flowering would be ushered in.

At first, Sékou Touré held these groups enthralled by his eloquence, the force of his personality, and the idealism he inspired in them; but as Guinea’s internal economic situation deteriorated, and as each of these groups individually began to feel the impact of this deterioration, words and personal magnetism were no longer sufficient to command the people’s loyalties. Other more forceful means were necessary. The President began to resort more and more to coercive measures, and the inevitable result of these measures was that one by one he began to alienate or drive from Guinea the very groups that once had been his most fervent supporters.

The teachers and civil servants from Senegal and Mali were among the first to become disenchanted with the regime. Although their arrival in Guinea had been hailed by the President and his people as a testament to African solidarity, the fraternity accorded these “brother Africans” seldom went beyond words. Once in Guinea, the Senegalese and Malian functionaries found that their presence, far from being welcomed, was often resented by the Guineans, who felt that they were taking away jobs which rightfully belonged to themselves. The fact that the outsiders, especially the Senegalese, were usually better educated, better trained, and therefore more efficient as administrators, made them all the more resented.

For their part, the foreign civil servants and teachers were first disappointed and then disgusted with the government’s apparent inability to meet its salary and housing obligations to them. Sometimes months would lapse before they would be paid. The fact that Senegal, and to a lesser extent Mali, remained on good terms with France, while Guinea’s relations with the ex-metropole steadily worsened, did not help matters. Although most of these foreign civil servants were of leftist political persuasion, they nevertheless resented the open and vitriolic attacks which Sékou Touré often launched against their countries.

Disillusionment also descended upon the Guinean soldiers who had been repatriated when their country became independent. By 1959 these ex-soldiers numbered about fifty thousand 1. Although many of them had returned to Guinea well before the Referendum, the bulk was made up of soldiers who had only recently opted out of the French army.

Guinean veterans of the French army marching through Conakry shortly after independence. (Photo courtesy Photo Information Côte d'Ivoire)
Guinean veterans of the French army marching through Conakry shortly after independence. (Photo courtesy Photo Information Côte d’Ivoire)
Members of the J.R.D.A., the youth wing of the P.D.G., awaiting the arrival of President Sékou Touré at Beyla. (Photo courtesy Photo Information Côte d'Ivoire)
Members of the J.R.D.A., the youth wing of the P.D.G., awaiting the arrival of President Sékou Touré at Beyla. (Photo courtesy Photo Information Côte d’Ivoire)

Many of these men returned home with the vain expectation that they would quickly be able to find jobs in civilian life. Others expected to join their country’s brand-new army. In both cases they were disappointed. Although many new jobs were open because of the departure of the French, these jobs demanded an education and an expertise far beyond that of the average Guinean veteran, most of whom were illiterate. The private sector could not absorb them because there were not enough jobs available; and few of the veterans were able to get into the newly created Guinean army because the army was small (about 2,000) and largely made up of ex-gendarmes who had served in the French territorial police.

The veterans’ frustration with Sékou Touré’s regime increased following Guinea’s withdrawal from the franc zone on March 1, 1960. Since relations with France were faring so badly, many veterans feared that their one source of income—the pensions they received each month from the French army—might soon be cut off. Aware of the serious threat that discontented veterans could pose to his regime, President Touré prudently continued to pay the veterans their monthly pensions (albeit in the new Guinean currency rather than in French francs as formerly). He did this even though his country was no longer engaged in financial dealings with the French 2; and thereby avoided what might have been a disastrous clash with the ex-soldiers.

Although he continued to pay them their pensions, Touré was unable to dispel the veterans’ distrust of his regime completely. He, in turn, sensed in the veterans a potential enemy and more and more took to denouncing them in public and warning them that any attempt on their part to start trouble would be ruthlessly put down. Touré never let the veterans forget that they had played only a minor role in the struggle for independence, and he made it clear that they had no right to expect that their country owed them anything:

« Today they [the veterans] find an independent country. Instead of coming with courage and confidence, with energy and pride to work for their country, certain among them say: “If we are not given work we will do this or we will do that.” In saying this, to whom do they think they are speaking? They are speaking to the people of Guinea, to those same people who obtained the independence of their country. Do they think that the people will let them do such a thing 3. »

Touré further antagonized the veterans by the hostility he displayed toward their comrades who had chosen to remain in the French army rather than accept repatriation at the time of the Referendum. Since that time, many of these soldiers had completed their tour of duty, and others had been discharged and pensioned prematurely by the French government as part of an economy measure. Touré regarded these men as little better than traitors and refused to let them return to their country.

For the women of Guinea, disenchantment was slower in coming. Since 1957, when they used their recently acquired vote to sweep Sékou Touré into office as territorial [Prime Minister] Vice President of the Council of Government, women had figured prominently in Guinean politics. During the first two years of independence, Sékou Touré did much to confirm their faith in him. He revised the country’s laws to raise the minimum marriage age to seventeen; and he encouraged his countrymen to discard traditions which made women near slaves. He greatly expanded educational facilities throughout the country and encouraged women to acquire professional skills and learn new methods of hygiene and child care. He exhorted the women of Guinea to participate in politics, and he saw to it that they shared in the responsibilities of public office. Touré even named [in 1963] two women to the National Political Bureau, Guinea’s highest policy-making body.

[Note. They were the late Mafory Bangoura (an illiterate early militant) and Loffo Camara (a professional nurse). The latter was arrested and executed by firing squad on January 25, 1971. — Tierno S. Bah]

President Touré’s inability to deliver on his promise to improve living standards was his most important failure—a failure which was first to cost him the support of the women, and then their loyalty. As one after another of his economic policies collapsed, bringing in its wake higher prices and still greater deprivations, the women started to turn away from the man who had once been their paladin. Their animosity toward Touré grew over the years as many of them saw their relatives and friends become the victims of his coercion.

Their discontent was also heightened by the excessive demands made on them by both Touré and the Parti Démocratique de Guinée (P.D.G.). They were expected to attend party meetings several times a week and sit through hours of dreary speeches by officials urging them to work harder. Each time that the President had a distinguished guest from abroad they were called upon to line the streets and roads of their communities hours ahead of time in order to assure the President and his visitor a “warm and spontaneous welcome.”

The disenchantment of the students and intellectuals with Touré was longer in coming, but more agonizing. Of all the social groups in Guinea, they more than any other had given him virtually unqualified support. Sékou Touré was their hero and spokesman, and they prepared to follow him wherever he should choose to lead. For these people, Touré personified the African nationalist at his best. He had stood up to the colonialists; better yet, he had booted them out of the country. He had declared war on them wherever they were to be found and had dedicated himself to extirpating their influence from Africa. He was a champion of that most cherished of all African goals—continental unity. Above all, he was the symbol of the new, independent Africa: proud, defiant, and free.

For the better part of three years following independence, relations between Sékou Touré and the P.D.G. leaders, on the one hand, and the intellectuals and students, on the other, were extremely cordial. In 1960, however, these relations started to deteriorate. The occasion was the arrest, torture, and finally the execution of Ibrahima Diallo, an attorney and high official in the Guinean [government] administration. Diallo had solicited permission from Touré to form an opposition party, as was allowed under the Constitution, and he claimed that he had the support of a sizable number of Guinean citizens. Touré managed to extract from him the names of his principal supporters. Once in possession of this information, Touré had these people rounded up, tortured, and eventually shot. He accused them of having conspired with the French to overthrow the government.

Relations between Touré and the intellectuals really started to become envenomed, however, in the latter part of 1961 in the wake of the so-called “Teachers’ Plot” against the government. At some time before November 16, 1961, leaders of the Guinean Teachers Union drew up a Memorandum criticizing government policies and demanding equal pay for teachers for equal work, without regard to their academic qualifications. When the government rejected these proposals, the union stepped up activity by its locals in favor of the memorandum, copies of which had been supplied to Eastern Bloc embassies without the knowledge of the government or the P.D.G. Meetings were held and student support of the teachers was loud and vigorous.

Government officials called together two hundred delegates from the Conakry schools and explained their policies, which they had the satisfaction of seeing endorsed by the delegates. However, when these delegates returned to their schools and explained that they had reaffirmed confidence in the government’s course, the students looked upon them as having defected from their cause.

On November 16, 1961, the Guinean Trade Union Conference opened in Conakry and the teachers’ union circulated its memorandum among the unionists. President Touré used the occasion of his speech to the Conference to denounce the unauthorized pamphleteering of the teachers’ union as a subversive activity.

Touré met with the National Political Bureau on November 17, 1961. It was decided at that time that the twelve leaders of the teachers’ union should be hailed before the High Court, a special tribunal that had been set up to try people for treasonous or subversive acts against the state. The following day the twelve were arrested. Between November 20 and 24, 1961, they were tried by the High Court on charges of having engaged in counterrevolutionary activities and “systematic efforts tending to divide and demoralize the young.” 4 Among the defendants were three of Guinea’s most prominent intellectuals:

The first two men were sentenced to imprisonment for ten years. Niane, along with two of the remaining defendants, was given a term of five years. Seven of the twelve were released.

When the students at Conakry’s Lycée Donka, the country’s largest secondary school, learned of these sentences, they took to the streets brandishing signs with slogans critical of Touré. Riots also broke out among students at the secondary school in Labe. This was the first open hostility against Sékou Touré since independence, and the government moved quickly and forcefully to quell it. The mobs in both cities were dispersed; and several hundred troops, aided by some two thousand milicias of the Jeunesse de la Révolution Démocratique Africaine (J.R.D.A., the youth wing of the P.D.G.) laid siege to the school at Donka to deal with the recalcitrant students. At the end of a tense day, they managed to flush the students out of their dormitories. In the melee that ensued, several students were reported to have been killed, some fifty were injured, and a number were arrested. The President ordered the schools closed in both Conakry and Labé and sent the students home to their parents.

When the news of what had happened at Lycée Donka and in Labé reached the numerous Guinean students in Paris, they reacted with unaccustomed hostility toward the P.D.G. The students rallied fellow members of the Fédération des Etudiants d’Afrique Noire en France (F.E.A.N.F.) and issued a blistering resolution backing their comrades in Guinea and calling upon the P.D.G. to desist from further coercive actions against them:

« The Fédération des Etudiants d’Afrique Noire en France meeting in Paris at its fourteenth ordinary session on December 27, 28, 29, and 30, 1961:

  • Reaffirms its active solidarity with the [teacher’s] union that has been tried and with all of the patriots that have been imprisoned
  • Reaffirms its indefectible attachment to the Guinean people in their struggle for liberty, dignity, prosperity, and justice
  • Calls upon the P.D.G. and the government of Guinea:
    1. To liberate and rehabilitate the imprisoned patriots
    2. To put a halt to all other repressive measures
    3. To reopen the secondary schools
    4. To re-establish the normal functioning of democratic institutions.

The F .E.A.N.F ., recalling the appreciable contribution of the revolutionary intelligentsia and of the students faithful to a well-established tradition of purposeful struggle for national liberation, democracy, and peace:

  • Rejects as unfounded the accusations brought against the patriots who have been tried
  • Supports the school-age youth and Guinean students in the hard struggle they are leading at the side of their people
  • Calls upon the P.D.G. and the Guinean government to annul the measures of intimidation and banishment taken toward Guinean students
  • Renders homage to the innocent victims who died during the use of troops in Conakry and in Labé
  • Launches an urgent and moving appeal to democrats the world over to intervene on behalf of the democratic and patriotic Guineans in danger of death
  • Engages the ensemble of African students to support their Guinean comrades who are threatened
  • Mandates the Council of Students to take all measures which may be necessary in view of subsequent development 5.

The government and the P .D.G. ignored the F.E.A.N.F.’s resolution. When the schools were reopened several weeks later, it was evident that tension was still high between the regime and the students.

In February 1962 another student disturbance broke out, once again involving the students at the Lycée Donka. The issue this time was the lack of uniforms and notebooks for the students boarded there.
Government efforts to resolve the strike peacefully were unsuccessful. The students were still smarting under their defeat at the hands of the government and of the J.R.D.A. a few weeks earlier, and very quickly their grievances went beyond the mere shortage of uniforms and notebooks and started to become manifestations of a general dissatisfaction with the Touré regime.

Fearing that the strike, if not settled, would lead to a spread of disorder throughout the capital, Touré once again moved to crush it by force. The methods he used in bringing the dissident students to heel were described in a letter written several years later by a Guinean student (since exiled in Dakar) who had been an eyewitness and participant in the events:

« I was a student at the Lycée Classique in Conakry until 1962, at which time there occurred an event which left a deep impression on me then and which continues to mark me now. It was the month of February and a strike broke out. The cause: a lack of notebooks and uniforms for the students boarded [at the school]. Not even knowing what the reasons were for the strike, I nevertheless did as my friends did and refused to attend classes. A general strike began at the Lycée which had about three thousand students. We had been through the first three days of our strike. On the night of the fourth day, at around 3:00 A.M., an armed battalion of soldiers arrived in tanks. It was our misfortune that in the dormitory where we slept the lights were still on. Seeing the lights burning, the soldiers concluded that we were the leaders of the strike. We were about seventy-five in number. They made us get into the tanks and then took us in the direction of Alpha Yaya, the concentration camp already well known to us. There they made us crawl over rocks for a distance of five hundred meters. The commandos were behind us and lynched those who fell behind.

At the end of the five hundred meters we got up, our arms and knees covered with blood. At about eight in the morning, after the raising of the flag, Russian manacles were put around our arms and legs. These manacles were of a type that closed more tightly as one’s pulse quickened. We were then put into trucks and driven a distance of about ninety-five kilometers out into the bush to a place which seemed to be intended to kill people in. There, in the hot sun, the soldiers made us lie down on a very steep slope, at the foot of which was a very deep abyss filled with mud. We were obliged to lie on our backs with our hands and feet in the air. It was in this position that we were supposed to lie for twenty-four hours without letting either our hands or feet touch the ground. If one touched the ground, one ran the risk of rolling and falling into the mud, and if one got up, the soldiers would rain blows on us with their whips. After the twenty-four hours had gone by, the soldiers took us back to the trucks where we were made to sit for four days without water or food or even a crust of bread between our teeth, and exposed without letup to the sun and mosquitoes.

On the night of the fourth day, at four in the morning, another truck pulled up abruptly beside us. It was a military truck. A dozen soldiers, led by a lieutenant, got out and walked toward us. It was the firing squad. The lieutenant gave very brief orders: “Surround them and fire into the truck.” The soldiers cocked the triggers of their rifles and took aim. Then the lieutenant ordered them to stop for a moment and, addressing himself to us, said: “I have received an order from the Ministry of Defense to execute you this night; however I will give you one final chance if you denounce the real leaders of the strike. Immediately, those of our comrades who were most frightened, revealed the names of eight older students who were the real leaders [of the strike]. The eight were arrested at once and then shot before our eyes. The next day we were finally freed of our manacles, our ankles and wrists bleeding. We were then taken back into the city (Conakry) where we were again interrogated.

When the interrogation was finished, we were given some warm water to drink and then put aboard a special train, each one of us to be sent back to his own village 6. »

Once Touré realized that the students no longer were willing to submit unprotestingly to his own and the party’s dictates, he made no further pretense of placating them. Instead, he attempted to control and discipline them with every means at his disposal. In retaliation for the resolution which the F.E.A.N.F. had passed against him, he ordered all Guinean students in France to withdraw immediately from that organization. Those who complied were then instructed to form an independent organization consisting only of Guinean students and under the close surveillance of the Guinean Embassy in Paris. Those who refused to comply had their scholarships and even their Guinean citizenship withdrawn.

President Touré despised and distrusted the intellectuals, and they in turn had only contempt for him. Those who remained in Guinea kept their peace in public but spoke derisively behind his back. Others—among them the well-known Guinean writer, Camara Laye—fled the country and denounced Touré from abroad.

Civil servants, veterans, labor leaders, students, intellectuals—Touré had made enemies of them all. As long as he had had to contend with only one group at a time, Touré could effectively control the situation. But now these groups, even though some of them such as the veterans and the students stood at opposite ends of the political spectrum, began to discover that they shared one very important thing: an abiding hatred of Touré and of his regime and a determination to see both removed from power. Coalesced, these groups presented an entirely different and infinitely more dangerous threat.

1. This is the estimate originally given by Sékou Touré in one of his earliest published works. He was later to claim that there were 250,000 veterans in the country. Cf. Sékou Touré, L’Action politique du Parti Démocratique de Guinée pour l’émancipation africaine, (Tome 2; Conakry: n. p., n.d. L1959? J), p. 49, and Sékou Touré’s statement in Le Monde, March 12, 1966.
2. The French did not renege on their obligations toward the Guinean veterans. The funds due Guinean soldiers were deposited in a special account in Paris ready to be turned over to the Guinean government once financial relations between the two countries had returned to normal.
3. Touré, op. cit., p. 451.
4. Foreign Service, No. 450 (London), December 23, 1961.
5. Cited from B. Ameillon, La Guinée, bilan d’une indépendance (Paris: François Maspero, 1964), pp. 179-80.
6. Cited from Fraternité-Matin (Abidjan) March 16, 1966 (author’s translation).

Next, Part III: The Plot Against the Government and the Accusations Against the Council of the Entente and France